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Satell v. Temple University

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 3, 2018



          KEARNEY, J.

         A Caucasian doctoral student challenging a university's decision to reduce his grade based on alleged plagiarism which caused his removal from the university's doctoral program must pursue the university's internal grievance procedures before claiming it deprived him of due process. He must also timely seek redress for claims the university discriminated against him because of his Caucasian race. When, as here, the graduate student did not pursue the university's internal remedies to challenge his grade reduction based on plagiarism and otherwise raises race discrimination claims based on statements or actions made well over two years before filing his case, we cannot find a genuine issue of material fact on the federal law questions precluding the university's motion for summary judgment. While the pro se former student cites a litany of disputed facts and misunderstandings to show why he should have remained in the doctoral program and the university acted unfairly towards him, our limited constitutional role does not extend to evaluating student effort or second guessing educational policy decisions so long as the university complies with federal law, including affording due process and not discriminating against the student based on race or another identified characteristic. As there are no genuine issues of material fact addressing these federal law questions, we enter the accompanying Order granting the university's motion for summary judgment.

         I. Facts adduced in discovery in the light most favorable to Mr. Satell.

         A. Mr. Satel's pre-doctoral career in the University's graduate programs.

         Stephen Satell, a white man, enrolled in Temple University's Urban Education program seeking a Master's degree in the Fall Semester 2011.[1] He then applied to the University's Urban Education doctoral program. The University denied admission to the Urban Education doctoral program.[2] In August 2012, the University awarded Mr. Satell a Master's degree in Urban Education.[3]

         Mr. Satell then applied to the University's Education Psychology doctoral program and the University denied his admission.[4] In Fall 2013 semester, Mr. Satell remained at the University as an undeclared continuing studies student enrolled in three courses in the University's Africology and African American Studies program.[5] In one of those three courses, Mr. Satell used the "n-word" when quoting James Baldwin in a class presentation.[6] Someone told him "never say that again" and then another student got up, left class, and then came back and told the other students to leave.[7] Mr. Satell reported this incident to the University President, Dr. Neil D. Theoobald, and the director of the Africology and African American Studies program, Dr. Molefi Asante.[8] Mr. Satell also told them he contacted an attorney about this incident "to make sure my rights are protected."[9]

         Mr. Satell also took part in a Kwanzaa celebration with the Africology and African American Studies program as the only Caucasian participant. "[O]ne student and one professor would not participate with him" in the Kwanzaa celebration.[10] A friend of Mr. Satell then placed him in contact with a law firm but Mr. Satell did not contact the law firm. He also told Dr. Asante of the incident and Dr. Asante assured Mr. Satell he would protect him from this conduct.[11]

         B. Mr. Satell's work in the doctoral program.

         In November 2013, Mr. Satell applied to the Africology and African American Studies doctoral program and the University admitted him.[12] In Fall 2014 semester, Mr. Satell enrolled as a doctoral student in Africology and African American Studies program.[13] Mr. Satell was the only Caucasian in the doctoral program.[14]

         The University's policies for the doctoral program mandate if a student receives "more than two grades below B- or more than one F constitutes grounds for academic dismissal. Students receiving two grades below B- or more than one F are automatically removed from the graduate programs."[15] The University also had a grade appeal grievance process for doctoral students which require the student first address the grade with "the faculty or staff concerned, " and if the issue is not resolved, the student should then consult the Graduate Director as a confidential intermediary.[16] If the student's grade issue is still not resolved, the student must then submit a written appeal to the Graduate Director who must appoint a committee to hear the student's appeal.[17] The committee makes a decision. The student can then appeal the committee's decision to the College of Liberal Arts, and in extraordinary circumstances, appeal to the Graduate School Dean.[18]

         Fall 2014 semester

         In Fall 2014, Mr. Satell enrolled in three courses: African Civilizations, Research Methods for African American Studies, and Theories and Methods in African American Studies and earned an A, B, and B- for his grades respectively.[19] In Mr. Satell's Theories and Methods in African American Studies course, Professor Dr. Ama Mazama told her class, including Mr. Satell, Afrocentricity "is about essence, meaning skin color, race which it predetermined" which meant Mr. Satell is excluded because he is Caucasian.[20] Mr. Satell never discussed the meaning of this statement with Dr. Mazama.[21] Dr. Mazama also offered her students materials if they chose to do a presentation on Diop, a figure in Africology, but when Mr. Satell selected Diop for his presentation topic, Dr. Mazama did not give him the materials.[22] Mr Satell is not aware if Dr. Mazama provided the Diop materials to other students.[23] Mr. Satell reported Dr. Mazama's comment and her Afrocentricity "is about essence" statement in a letter to Dr. Asante.[24]

         Dr. Mazama awarded Mr. Satell a C in her African American Africology class.[25] Mr. Satell requested a grade change based on Dr. Mazama's e-mails promising to change his grade and as a result, Dr. Mazama changed his grade to a B-[26].

         Spring 2015 semester

         In Spring 2015, Mr. Satell enrolled in three courses, African Aesthetics, Ancient Egyptian Language I, and Teaching African-American Studies earning an A-, B-, and a (Irrespectively.[27]

         Mr. Satell attended "Teaching African-American Studies" taught by Dr. Nilgun Anadolu-Okur, a Caucasian woman.[28] Dr. Okur treated Mr. Satell, the only Caucasian, differently from the other four students in the class when she denied his requests for an appointment for office hours.[29] Dr. Okur allowed other students to make appointments for office hours.[30] Dr. Okur gave him less time to present than other students on his first and second presentations, forced him to give his third presentation outside class time, and interrupted him during his presentation.[31] Dr. Okur also approved his paper topic, and then forced him to change his paper topic before he had to give a presentation about his paper, and two weeks before his final paper on that topic was due.[32] Mr. Satell compiled and changed his paper topic but Dr. Okur still falsely reported he refused to change his paper topic to the director of the program, Dr. Molefi Asante.[33] Dr. Okur also required an African American student to redo his presentation, then Dr. Okur forgot and the student never redid his presentation.[34]

         Mr. Satell found Dr. Okur had "erratic behavior across the board" towards students but only "grandstand[ed] on him" as the only Caucasian.[35] Mr. Satell believes Dr. Okur did this to "humiliate [him] in front of the class and consistently treated [him] differently than the other class members in a very public way."[36]

         After Dr. Okur awarded him a C- in her class, Mr. Satell contacted Dr. Asante because of his concern the doctoral program would automatically dismiss him if he received a second grade below a B-.[37] Dr. Asante directed Mr. Satell to speak with the Graduate Director for the program, Dr. Mazama.[38] Dr. Mazama told Mr. Satell she contacted Dr. Okur several times but received no response.[39] Mr. Satell then grieved his grade from Dr. Okur to the University's Vice Dean of Graduate Affairs for the College of Liberal Arts.[40] During the review, Mr. Satell spoke with a student ombudsperson and raised issues of "the possible role of racial basis" in his grade.[41] The College of Liberal Arts graduate committee denied Mr. Satel's grade appeal and his grade remained a C-.[42] The committee also directed Mr. Satell to contact the University's Office of Equal Opportunity Compliance about his racial basis concerns.[43] Mr. Satell never contacted the office about his racial basis concerns.[44]

         Because Mr. Satell's grade remained a C-, under the University's doctoral policies, if Mr. Satell received one more grade under a B-, the University would automatically dismiss him from the program.[45]

         Fall 2015 semester

         In Fall 2015, Mr. Satell enrolled in two courses: Readings in African History and Critical Reading: African Diaspora earning a B- and A-.[46]

         In Mr. Satell's Readings in African History class taught by Dr. Asante, a guest speaker suggested Mr. Satell take a group photograph because Mr. Satell is a different race than everyone else.[47] Dr. Asante told the guest speaker, "that's terrible, he puts up with enough stuff in the department."[48]

         Spring 2016 semester

         In Spring 2016, Mr. Satell enrolled in four courses: Independent Study, Individual Research in African American Studies, History of the American Presidency, and Recent U.S. history receiving a B, C, A, and B respectively.[49]

         In Mr. Satell's Independent Studies course taught by Dr. Aaron Smith, he submitted a paper for this independent studies course and Dr. Smith initially gave him A.[50] Dr. Smith then identified three passages where Mr. Satell plagiarized without attribution.[51]

         On May 16, 2016, Dr. Asante told Mr. Satell he changed his independent studies course grade from an A to a C- because Mr. Satell failed to properly cite sources at least three times.[52]Dr. Asante explained Mr. Satell, "received a C because of the sourcing problem."[53] Dr. Asante's notice was the first notice Mr. Satell received about issues with his final paper.[54] Dr. Asante also notified Mr. Satell of his right to seek review of this grade change through the grievance process.[55]

         Mr. Satell received two grades below a B- and the University would now automatically dismiss him from the doctoral program. Attempting to remain in the program, Mr. Satell asked Dr. Asante to ask Dr. Okur if she would she raise his C- in Teaching African-American Studies to a B-.[56] Dr. Okur refused because Mr. Satell actually received an F in her class but already raised his grade to a C- and refused to raise it any higher citing the committee's denial of Mr. Satell's grievance.[57]

         Mr. Satell then e-mailed Dr. Asante about the plagiarized paper for Dr. Smith and also complained again about Dr. Okur and Dr. Mazama.[58] In his e-mail to Dr. Asante, Mr. Satell also included a draft of his letter to Dr. Smith.[59] Mr. Satell describes the plagiarism as a misunderstanding because he did not finish the draft.[60]

         Consistent with its policies, the University removed Mr. Satell from the doctoral program based on his two grades below a B-. Mr. Satell never grieved his grade in Dr. Smith's Independent Studies course.[61] Mr. Satell is not aware of any non-Caucasian students in his program who committed or were accused of plagiarism and were not disciplined.[62]

         II. Analysis

         Mr. Satell sued the University alleging it violated the Fourteenth Amendment by dismissing him from a doctoral program without notice and due process. Mr. Satell also alleged the University violated Title VI by discriminating against him on the basis of race. The University moves for summary judgment on the due process claim arguing it offered constitutionally sufficient process but Mr. Satell failed to use the process.[63] The University also moves for summary judgment on Mr. Satell's Title VI claim because he fails to adduce evidence of intentional discrimination, and even if he had, the two year statute of limitations ran on his claims.

         A. Mr. Satell fails to adduce evidence the University deprived him of due process.

         Mr. Satell alleges the University deprived him of due process because Dr. Asante told him of his grade change after the grade already changed, not before and failed to provide an adequate opportunity to be heard.

         The Fourteenth Amendment right "is implicated when a student in a school run by a state faces non de minimis sanctions imposed by the school."[64] Our court of appeals instructs when a school dismisses a student for academic reasons, "an informal faculty evaluation with a student is all that is required" to satisfy due process.[65] The Supreme Court distinguished this informal evaluation from the more stringent level of due process required for students charged with disciplinary infractions where formal notice and a hearing are required.[66]

         While the Fourteenth Amendment requires the University give Mr. Satell an informal faculty evaluation, it also requires Mr. Satell take advantage of the University's procedures because his "due process violation 'is not complete when the deprivation occurs, it is not complete unless and until [the University] fails to provide due process."[67]

         The University told Mr. Satell his professor changed his Independent Studies paper grade from an A to a C- and the reasons for the change. The University also notified Mr. Satell of his right to seek review of this grade change through the grievance process.[68] Mr. Satell elected not grieve his grade using the University's procedures, even though he knew about the procedure having grieved his grade from Dr. Okur.[69]

         Mr. Satell argues the University violated his rights by giving him notice after, not before, it changed his grade. Mr. Satell does not have a constitutional right to notice before the University changes his grade. The Fourteenth Amendment does not require formal notice before academic dismissal; it only requires an informal faculty evaluation for due process.[70]

         There is no dispute of material fact as, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Satell, the University provided Mr. Satell with due process when it told him his professor changed his grade, the reasons for the change, and offered him the opportunity to change the grade. Mr. Satell, however, elected not take advantage of the University's offered due process.

         He is now estopped from alleging the University "failed to provide due process."[71] We grant summary judgment for the University on Mr. Satel's due process claim.

         B. The statute of limitations bars Mr. Satell's Title VI claim.

         Mr. Satell alleges the University discriminated against him as the only Caucasian in the Africology and ...

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